The right place for backyard hens

Published 9:58 pm Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A committee of members of the Suffolk Planning Commission seems to be on the right track in its consideration of a change to the city’s zoning ordinance that would allow residents to raise hens on residential property.

Recognizing the widespread support for the change, as well as the potential problems such a change could cause, the four-person committee seems to be pursuing a compromise solution. Compromise is not always a good thing, but in this case, it’s probably the wisest way forward.

Currently, “backyard hens” are allowed only in areas zoned for agricultural or rural use. Those uses constitute about 68 percent of the city, officials say. In fact only about 7 percent of the city’s land falls under the residential zoning category that supporters of backyard hens hope will be opened up to the fowl as a result of the changes considered by the Planning Commission.

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There are many in Suffolk who are eager for the chance to raise their own chickens and harvest their own fresh eggs. But there are also many who worry about odors, noise and other negative aspects of having chicken coops on their neighbors’ properties. And there’s a reasonable argument that the percentages show there’s little need for the change, as there already are plenty of places people can live and raise chickens in Suffolk by right.

Still, there might be a middle ground somewhere, and the committee smartly signaled on Tuesday that it is considering options to explore that area. Members suggested that there are some residential areas of Suffolk where even a half-dozen hens in the neighbors’ backyard might be objectionable — think downtown, for instance — and that they might be more amenable to changing the zoning ordinance to allow hens in areas where residential lots encompass 15,000 or 30,000 square feet.

Such a compromise would allow some backyard hens, but only in areas where they’re less likely to be objectionable to others. The diehard, I-should-be-able-to-do-whatever-I-want-on-my-property crowd might still have a problem with this compromise, but that’s the thing about compromises: Nobody gets everything they sought.

Another suggestion that seems to have gained traction is the idea that raising chickens might be allowed only with a permit, which could then be revoked if chickens were allowed to roam the neighborhood, if owners didn’t keep their coops clean or if they allowed the chickens to become objectionable in some other way.

Again, this would be a good compromise on the matter.

We’re not always in favor of compromises, and we suspect the ones under consideration by the Planning Commission’s committee will not satisfy some folks on either side of this issue, but the middle ground being contemplated here could be just the right place for backyard hens in Suffolk.